The greatest gift a piano student can receive is the gift of independence, that is choosing a song and learning it on their own. This opens possibilities for a lifetime of enjoyment and expression at the piano. Learning to read piano sheet music is an important part of developing this freedom. This post explores practical hints and tips to support you.
Piano Sheet Music
At the start it is useful to learn a few ‘landmark’ notes. The idea of a landmark note is that you can recognise it instantly in any context. The first one is middle C.
Play Middle C from the Skoove sight-reading course to learn your first landmark note. Listen carefully while you play to gain extra benefit from the Skoove app. As well as supporting you in learning your landmark note, the backing track supports the development of your ear and sense of pulse as you listen to the chord changes and rhythm.
You can now choose your next landmark notes. Perhaps there is a note that you find particularly easy to recognise? Other popular landmark notes are G in the treble clef and F in the bass clef.
Reading Music by Intervals
Good keyboard geography – knowing your way around the piano without having to constantly look down – is a valuable skill to develop. This skill can be supported by learning to read intervals. An interval is the gap from one note to the next. It is a very quick and practical way to learn to read sheet music because your fingers respond to the shape of the music.
First you will learn to play by step. From your ‘landmark’ C you will move up a step, repeat or move down a step. At this stage it is not necessary to know the name of the notes you are playing. You have the skills to work it out from your ‘landmark’ note. Right now, you are mastering reading by interval or shape.
Try it out on Musical Steps, the Skoove app will wait for you to play the right note, so you don’t even need to look down, meaning you are really developing your keyboard geography and ear.
Once you can recognise and move by step you can progress to reading skips. The Skoove app will help you place your hand correctly. After that, maintain focus on the score as you learn to read and play by skips. In this exercise you will learn what it feels like to play the interval of a 3rd.
When learning to read piano sheet music it is also useful to adopt some short cuts. In the treble clef the 4 notes in the spaces make the word FACE, when reading from the lowest to the highest space. You can use this to find your first note in a piece and after that you can read by interval.
In the bass clef you can make up a rhyme to help you recall the notes in the spaces. The most common is All Cows Eat Grass. Notice each time the mnemonics are created from low to high. This is because when reading more complicated music with chords the most efficient way to do it is from low to high. By creating mnemonics from low to high you also train the eye to move effectively over the score.
Reading piano sheet music will also be a lot easier if you can say the piano alphabet both forwards and backwards. Learning it backwards helps you identify notes which are lower than your landmark note. C, B, A, G, F, E, D.
Now it is time to combine your skills in Mix and Match.
General Skills which support reading piano sheet music
There are 3 other important skills which impact your speed and success in learning to read music. They are rhythm, reading ahead and playing in different positions on the keyboard. The pianist who recognises rhythm easily has more time to focus on notes and expression.
Reading ahead in music requires you to read the upcoming notes while still playing the current ones. It is common when reading text but takes a bit more practice and awareness when reading music.
Playing in different positions ensures your fingers don’t link a note to a finger. Most of the work so far has been in C position. Why not play Morning Awakening for a totally different hand position or try these finger positions exercises.
If you find yourself habitually looking at the keyboard image, try covering it to ensure you are training yourself to read the music.
All of these methods combine to help you learn to read efficiently in a short amount of time. For best results use them all and never underestimate the value of several short daily practice sessions.
Author of this blog post:
Roberta Wolff started piano lessons at the age of five and is still enjoying learning! Currently, she teaches piano pedagogy and performance pedagogy at post graduate level in the UK. Her other work includes running a private teaching practice for students of all ages and abilities and creating learning and practice resources. Roberta loves writing as a means to supporting others on their piano journey.